Origins of the New Century
Major events and transformations in history rarely coincide with the calendar. One way of conceiving of the twentieth century is not the chronological century (1900–1999) but the “short twentieth century” that began with World War I in 1914 and concluded with the collapse of the USSR in 1991. This period saw the destruction of the Europe-dominated global system that had emerged by the mid-1800s and the rise and fall of the bipolar Cold War world dominated by the rivalry between the United States and the USSR. The Europe-dominated global system of the “short twentieth century” peaked in the thirty to forty years before World War I.
Within the European world, the years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of rapid philosophical and technological changes, a great faith in progress, and the conviction of European superiority to outside cultures (and by extension, outside races). In the realm of social philosophy, established worldviews were overthrown. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution undermined the Christian Biblical account of creation by postulating that man and other animal species had evolved from simpler life forms over the course of millions of years. Albert Einstein destroyed the certainties of the Newtonian model of physics that had dominated the European scientific world for almost two centuries. Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology, questioned the conviction, widespread since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, that human beings were fundamentally rational.
The extension of Darwin’s notion of the “survival of the fittest” into the realm of social thought introduced even more dramatic change into the European worldview. Darwin’s theory sought to explain only the origin of species, but other thinkers took the notion of survival of the fittest and applied it to the relations between social classes and between races. This application, which came to be known as Social Darwinism, claimed that unrestrained competition between individuals was necessary for human progress (so that the “weak” could be weeded out). Social Darwinists also argued that Europeans had proven themselves more fit than other races, thus justifying European domination of the rest of the globe. Many world leaders came to accept the notion that war was desirable, for it supposedly weeded out the weak specimens of humanity.
The four decades before World War I were a time of great technological change in European and neo-European societies. Railroad track continued to be laid all over the world. In the Second Industrial Revolution, electricity, petroleum, and the internal combustion engine were all harnessed as energy sources.
Continuing industrialization entailed social and political change as millions of rural migrants moved into cities. The simultaneous introduction of universal manhood suffrage in many areas and the spread of mass public education created new political tensions. Old elites often used nationalism and the rhetoric of white European superiority to ameliorate those tensions.
The period from 1880 to 1914 saw a powerful new burst of European colonial expansion. European powers carved up Africa, while a new imperial power, the United States, defeated Spain and seized the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines. France completed its takeover of Vietnam. By the end of this period, four-fifths of the Earth’s land surface had come under European or American domination.
The motivations for the new imperialism are not easy to identify. Many imperialists argued that an industrial power required colonies to provide raw materials, protected markets, and a safe field for investment. Marxists followed up on these arguments, but added a negative spin¾the function of colonies was to enrich capitalists in the core at the expense of the periphery. But late-coming powers to the colonial game, most importantly Italy and Germany, actually found colonies to be a net drain on their treasuries. Nonetheless, even in these countries, powerful patriotic lobbies continued to agitate for further colonization. The new imperialism was at least as much a matter of national prestige as of economic gain.
Resistance to imperialism was largely ineffective before 1914. European military and economic power was simply overwhelming. In Africa, only Ethiopia and Liberia retained their independence. In Asia, Japan was the lone “success” story, beginning to industrialize and becoming an imperial power in its own right. But when open rebellion against imperialist incursions broke out in the most populous Asian society, China, in 1900, the European powers combined with Japan and the United States to crush it and impose a heavy indemnity. This event became known in English as the Boxer Rebellion.
Chapter Two concludes with a comparison of a major European metropolis, Berlin, with the village of Dinshawai in the British colony of Egypt. Berlin was the capital of the newly consolidated German Empire, and its inhabitants identified themselves as Germans. It was characterized by state projects to improve the population’s health, send all children to school, and make housing safer. The state also provided disability insurance, health insurance, and pensions. One important motivation for these projects was heading off a future Marxist revolution, for there were great disparities in wealth and power between the various social strata in Germany, and the Socialist Party was the largest political party in the country. Berlin was a center of industry, scientific research, capital accumulation, cultural innovation, and wealth. It was a fast-moving place, where workers learned to live by clock-time, and where they could read about events around the world in cheap newspapers.
In contrast to Berlin, Dinshawai was poor and agricultural. Most of the population was illiterate and had very little knowledge of the outside world. The extended kin group, which maintained a “big house” for celebrations, deliberations, and other functions, provided whatever social safety net existed. The kin group (there were five in Dinshawai) and Islam were the most important institutions structuring society¾the state’s only real interaction with the village was to appropriate taxes. Villagers in Dinshawai had very little, if any, awareness of themselves as “Egyptian.” Life expectancy in Dinshawai was far shorter than in Berlin, and the overall health of the population was worse. There was also far less occupational and social differentiation in Dinshawai¾most people were small-scale farmers.
In spite of Dinshawai’s relative isolation compared to Berlin, it was becoming integrated into the capitalist and imperialist world system even before the turn of the twentieth century. The Egyptian khedive had promoted the cultivation and export of cotton for much of the nineteenth century. Much land that had previously been cultivated for food crops in the Dinshawai area was now sown in cotton. As the marketing of cotton became more important to village livelihood, Dinshawai become vulnerable to fluctuations in the world price of cotton. Price instability meant that smaller farmers might lose their land in a year of cheap cotton. A slow process of concentration of land ownership was underway in the Nile Delta, and many farmers were now tenants, not owners, of the land they worked.
A more direct and violent foreign intrusion occurred in 1906 when a party of British officers traveling through Dinshawai shot some pigeons that the villagers kept for food. The officers started a fire and shot a village woman by accident. Villagers retaliated with violence, and several persons died on both sides. British authorities, acting through native Egyptian administrators, then punished village leaders harshly, executing four and sentencing others to hard labor or flogging. This event became a rallying cry for Egyptian nationalists who strove to free their country from British rule.
THE THEMES IN CHAPTER 2
Global interrelatedness. In the late nineteenth century, most of the world was brought into the European imperialist global system, often by force. In non-European areas, new connections to global markets upset existing economic and social arrangements. Direct encounters with Europeans provoked resistance in some areas and sowed the seeds of future nationalism.
Identity and difference. Europeans grappled with new forms of identity¾as members of different nations, such as the German or the French or the Polish, and as members of the “white” European race(s). Outside Europe and the neo-Europeans, imperialism combined with the influence of European ideas to provoke the first stirrings of national identity in places like Egypt and Vietnam.
Rise of the mass society. In Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, etc., public education, rising literacy, military conscription, urbanization, the development of cheap newspapers, and the expansion of the franchise brought new groups of the population into the political process. States and large corporations involved in mass production became far more involved in the lives of ordinary citizens.
Technology versus nature. Developments such as the discovery of microbes, the invention of antiseptics, and huge irrigation projects in the Nile Delta made Europeans increasingly confident of their ability to dominate nature through science and technology. But events like the sinking of the British liner Titanic (1912) suggested that human control of nature was far from complete. And the use of new technologies, such as aircraft, in colonial wars presaged the mass slaughter of World War I.